MPs to ask British Museum about thefts and damage to international reputation

A Metropolitan Police investigation is under way.

MPs will question British Museum bosses about thefts from the institution’s collection.

The museum disclosed on August 16 that items – including gold jewellery, semi-precious stones and glass – were missing, stolen or damaged.

It was later revealed that this was an estimated 2,000 artefacts and the PA news agency understands they were taken over a “significant” period of time before 2023.

British Museum artefacts thefts
A general view of the British Museum (PA)

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee (CMS) said an upcoming one-off evidence session on Wednesday will “focus on the reputational and financial implications for the museum and the wider national collection”.

Former chancellor George Osborne, chairman of the museum’s trustees, and Sir Mark Jones, interim director of the body, are set to answer questions about what this means for the institution.

MPs could also ask about what is being done to recover the items, if there has been damage to the museum’s reputation and how future relations with other institutions may have been impacted.

On August 25, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer resigned and his deputy, Jonathan Williams, stepped back from his position.

In a statement at the time, German art historian Mr Fischer admitted the museum “did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to warnings in 2021” about the stolen artefacts.

British Museum artefacts thefts
A gold ring with a glass setting, similar to the items missing from the British Museum’s collections (The Trustees of the British Museum/PA)

The museum had been alerted by Ittai Gradel, an author, academic and antiquities dealer, to some of the stolen items, and he told PA that claims he had withheld information from the institution were an “outright lie”.

Mr Fischer – who had announced in July he would step down next year – also said in the statement that he “misjudged the remarks” made about Dr Gradel.

When former Victoria And Albert (V&A) Museum director Sir Mark was confirmed in his new role in early September, he vowed to “restore the reputation” of the British Museum.

On September 26, the institution said “60 items have now been returned, with a further 300 identified and due to be returned imminently”.

The body also released images of classical Greek and Roman gems and jewellery – which are similar to the missing artefacts but not pictures of the absent items – to the public which could lead to the recovery of more objects.

Turner Prize 2019
Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate art museums and galleries (PA)

Another session on Wednesday by the CMS committee is set to see Maria Balshaw, chairwoman of the National Museums’ Directors Council (NMDC) and director of the Tate art museums and galleries, and Lord Parkinson, parliamentary under-secretary of state for arts and heritage, appear.

They are scheduled to be asked about the impact on the wider heritage sector.

MPs are also keen to look at what lessons can be learned and the impact on the reputation of other institutions across the UK.

A Metropolitan Police investigation is under way into the thefts at the British Museum.

A man was interviewed under caution on August 23.

No arrests have been made.

The British Museum said in August an unnamed member of staff has been sacked and it is taking legal action.

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